Michigan State's Libya Ties

March 7, 2011

The London School of Economics and Political Science is in the midst of a major academic scandal over ties to the government of Libya, including questions about the legitimacy of a Ph.D. awarded to a son of Muammar el-Qaddafi's, connections between administrators and a foundation controlled by the Libyan dictator, and training provided by the London School of Economics to Libyan government officials. On Thursday, amid escalating criticism, the director of the school resigned and officials pledged an inquiry into all ties to Libya. The training programs have already been suspended.

As the scandal has grown, British publications have noted that the London School of Economics is not the only university training officials of the Libyan government, despite a widespread consensus that Qaddafi's government is among the most oppressive in the world, as evidenced by its response to recent protests there.

Those articles have asserted that Michigan State University is also training government officials from Libya -- and the university confirmed those reports this weekend in e-mails to Inside Higher Ed. (There have also been a series of recent reports -- and considerable criticism -- of prominent academics who have worked as consultants for the Libyan government on its image, but those reports are about professors' outside consulting activities, not official programs of their universities.)

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Kent P. Cassella, a spokesman for Michigan State, said that the programs with Libya followed the resumption of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Libya in 2006, and that "the Bush and Obama administrations have been supportive of re-establishing connections between U.S. higher education institutions and Libya." He said that Michigan State had responded to requests for proposals from the Libyan government, which were provided to the U.S. embassy there.

Michigan State may also have an advocate in Tripoli. Libya's foreign minister, Musa Kusa, earned a master's degree in social science from Michigan State in 1978. Kusa, whom an MSNBC profile recently termed "a ruthless and bloody loyalist" to Qaddafi, is best known for his years of work in Libya's intelligence services, where his alleged link to various terrorist acts has earned him the nickname "envoy of death." Cassella said that Michigan State has "no indication" that Kusa played any role in the selection of his alma mater as the institution to educate Libyan government officials.

There are two types of students from Libya at Michigan State, and Cassella noted that all of those in either group have been issued visas by the U.S. government, showing "the comfort" of the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security with these individuals coming to the United States.

One group consists of degree-seeking students, of which Michigan State has 24 from Libya, all financed by Libya's Ministry of Education. (These students make up a small fraction of the 5,351 foreign students at Michigan State.)

The students in the second group are similar to those in the program that has attracted widespread criticism of the London School of Economics. In Michigan State's program, 35 professionals from Libya, selected by the government as "future diplomats," are enrolled at Libya's expense in the university's Visiting International Professional Program, which describes itself as creating "practical links between the world-class faculty at MSU and global industries, businesses, governments and societies."

Cassella said that "the goal of this program is to provide the language skills needed to function in a diplomatic environment along with broad knowledge of international relations, diplomatic history, diplomatic protocols and communications, as well as a good familiarity with American culture, society and political values." The Libyan officials spend two years at Michigan State.

The program is managed in Libya by the National Economic Development Board, a government entity that also managed some of Libya's collaborations with the London School of Economics. Cassella said that Michigan State's "program for mid-career Libyans has no formal or informal relationship to LSE."

Cassella added: "It appears the only way our program may be considered similar to that of LSE is that it is funded by the same government entity and serves similar Libyan audiences. But it appears our program may be different in that it was the result of an RFP from the National Economic Development Board and our response to the RFP was based on the current services available through MSU's English Language Center and VIPP. We are not consulting with the Libyan government on economic development strategies and to my knowledge have received no donations or endowment funds from Libya."

Asked about the ethics of applying for and running a program to educate people who work in the government of Libya, Cassella forwarded a statement from Jeffrey Riedinger, dean of international studies and programs.

"As a globally engaged university in the 21st century MSU has been mindful of U.S. strategic interests in expanding higher education collaborations and programming in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. As an institution of higher learning we believe there is great value in helping, and even a responsibility to help, build relationships between people of different backgrounds, cultures and countries," Riedinger said.

As far as this program with Libya, he said that "MSU responded to an RFP that, by the U.S. Embassy in Libya's assessment, described and conducted an open, inclusive and fair process of selecting citizen/civilian participants in a nationwide competition. This program was not described as nor to our knowledge limited to current government employees. We are helping the citizens of Libya, not specifically the government of Libya or the Gaddafi regime."

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